San Pedro de Atacama nestles in a north-eastern corner of Chile, a quaint, tourist trap of a town. Its narrow streets are populated by cafés, gift shops and dusty backpackers. This would be another unremarkable day for the residents, were it not for the presence of two Ferraris.
It is an incongruous sight: a pair of Ferrari 599 GTB Fioranos, one red and one blue, is blocking an earthy sidestreet. Ahead and behind are the support vehicles - vans, minibuses and tiny Fiats. These are populated by team personnel, wearing garish red shirts and pulling personalised luggage. Little wonder the local dogs look confused.
The cars, and yours truly, are taking part in Ferrari's Panamerican 20,000, which began in Belo Horizonte, Brazil on 24 August and is due to end in New York on 17 November.
"The next few days will be one of the toughest legs of the tour," says the group leader, Enrico Goldoni, as he ushers me into the blue 599.
In normal life, Goldoni has the enviable job of leading the team responsible for testing Ferrari's next generation of supercars. "It was difficult leaving Maranello [Ferrari HQ] but getting the cars through such varied terrain is a huge challenge. This is really a crazy thing to do."
Today's stage is relatively short and takes us north-west to the copper-mining town of Calama. En route, we detour to visit the Valle de la Luna. The moonscape would be surreal enough without the presence of two £170,000 Ferraris and if you were a conspiracy theorist, you really could imagine Neil Armstrong taking "one small step for man" in this dusty desert.
We travel everywhere in convoy, with Goldoni leading the way in his diminutive Fiat. At times it's frustrating, but it's also sensible. Even the good roads in Chile can be strewn with rocks and llama.
The cars have been modified for the trip, but only slightly. The ground clearance has been raised by 25mm and protective aluminium cladding has been added to the underbody. For this leg of the journey, the car is also wearing specially developed rally-spec tyres, which offer increased traction in the dust.
The rest of the 599 is standard, including the 6.0-litre V12. Global warming worriers might baulk at its carbon emissions, but cold-hearted enthusiasts will revel in its 620bhp and erotic soundtrack. There's something surreal about driving a 205mph supercar across such desolate terrain. The ambience inside the leather-lined cabin bears no relation to the view beyond the bonnet.
We go to bed early in Calama, in anticipation of a long day ahead. We're to drive 393km (244miles) across the Bolivian border to the town of Uyuni and it's not long before the paved highways give place to dirt roads. The rolling landscape, interspersed with the occasional lake or salt flat, is remarkable. It seems strange that something so beautiful should be witnessed by so few - we drive for two hours without seeing anyone else.
And then we arrive at a police checkpoint at Ascotan. At least three hours from civilisation, it's occupied by a solitary official, a dog and an old railway carriage. In dutiful fashion, he checks our paperwork, raises the gate and ushers us on our way. Two hours later, I'm at the wheel of the first Ferrari ever to enter Bolivia.
In contrast to Chile, which has recovered well since General Pinochet left office in '89, Bolivia is brutally poor. "We have all the resources of a rich country but we've been let down by poor administration," says our guide, Dante. The incumbent President, Evo Morales, is openly courting Castro, which has not pleased Bolivia's entrepreneurs.
It's already dark by the time we reach Uyuni and we've been driving for more than 14 hours. Uyuni would be no more than a poor, nondescript little town did it not play host to the extraordinary Salar de Uyuni. Measuring more than 10,000sq km, it's the world's largest salt flat - a vast, white wilderness.
The journey from Uyuni to Potosi is little more than 200km but it takes us nine hours. On rutted dirt roads, we crawl along at 15mph with the 599's steering wheel shaking violently in my sweaty palms. The closest most Ferrari owners come to such terrain is a kerb in Chelsea.
Potosi is the world's highest city at 4,090m, and in the 18th century, silver mining made it the richest in Latin America. It's declined since but much of its architecture retains a baroque beauty. While I pant and wheeze, the locals are bubbling with verve and vibrancy.
The road from Potosi to Bolivia's commercial capital, La Paz, is quick and paved, to the relief of us all. The cars and their occupants have been taking a battering and the journey across the Altiplano has not been trouble free.
A damaged wire has obliterated the dashboard electronics in the blue Ferrari and a tyre was ripped near the Chilean border, but these are minor concerns. The tyre was fixed immediately and the dashboard will be repaired during tomorrow's rest day. Ferrari is carrying a van full of spares and should the worst happen, there's a third car waiting in Italy.
We arrive in La Paz to be met by that potent symbol of civilisation, the Burger King. After so many days on the road, it feels odd to be back in a major urban centre. After a reception at the Italian embassy, the Ferrari caravan will roll on to Peru, but for me this is the end of the road.
The Panamerican 20,000 is a PR stunt, but that does not invalidate the challenge. The 599 is a terrific car, but it was never designed for these conditions. I'm genuinely disappointed to be flying home - this was a proper and enthralling adventure.Reuse content